Remembering Les Payne (1941–2018)

Remembering Les Payne (1941–2018)

Reflections on the journalism pathbreaker.


There is no date on the black-and-white portrait of the Army Ranger, but knowledge about its subject places it sometime in the mid-1960s, when Les Payne was sent to Vietnam. What catches your eye about the photo, among a handful laid out for Payne’s March 27 funeral service at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, is the wry self-possession that stares back at you. Payne was only in his 20s when this portrait was taken. But even if you knew nothing whatsoever about what lay ahead for this soldier in the decades to come, you can tell that this is somebody who cannot be easily taken, or bought. He would carry this cool, dry gaze with him into situations that tested his fortitude, wit, and sense of fair play and that self-possession would come through, unshaken. That same face—older, grayer, with more facial hair—stares at you from the cover of the same program: amused, alert, and impervious to the supplication of fools, no matter who they were or where they came from; one upon whom nothing, or very little, was lost.

“Don’t pull your punches, tell the truth, and duck!” was a professional credo for Les Payne, who died March 19 of a heart attack at 76. He was the kind of journalist that people who studied journalism once wanted to be like when they grew up. Not for the achievements, though Les’s (we knew each other, so I think I’m on safe ground with the familiarity) were considerable: a Pulitzer Prize and honorary degrees from a handful of colleges, including his University of Connecticut alma mater. Rather it was because he was the journalistic equivalent of a professional athlete who could, as the sportscasters were once fond of saying, “do it all.”

He made his name as an investigative reporter, spending a week posing as a Southern migrant worker at a labor camp in Riverhead, not far from where Newsday, the Long Island daily that hired him in 1969, was headquartered in Garden City. His story exposed the exploitation of black workers at the camp by white employers. He was part of the team of investigators that won Newsday a 1974 Pulitzer Prize for public service for tracing “The Heroin Trail” from Turkey’s poppy fields to the streets of New York City and its suburbs. At one perilous point in their inquiry, team members strove to get close to “Mr. French Connection” himself, Marcel Francisci, the man described by federal authorities as “the financier, the arranger, the fixer” of heroin transactions beyond his Corsica base—and whose gangland affiliates Les and his team only barely managed to elude.

Les’s New York Times obituary, citing this account, noted that though he didn’t “nail” or even find Franscisi, his share of the Pulitzer earned him a profile in a Dewar’s Scotch advertisement. To this reader, this characterization, at best, shortchanges the blunt-edged fearlessness Les showed as a reporter compelled to roam far and wide by little more than curiosity. According to his son Jamal, it was bewilderment over the Symbionese Liberation Army’s 1973 assassination of Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster that made him leave Long Island for California to see for himself what the SLA was all about before its 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst. In 1976, he went to South Africa where he filed dispatches on the Soweto uprising and its aftermath. (He went on to become a Pulitzer finalist for the series; controversially, the 1978 award went to someone else.) Four years later, Les returned to Africa to write about deadly tribal conflicts in Zimbabwe. While there, he was arrested by guerillas loyal to the newly elected president Robert Mugabe. Interrogated for three hours in a barbed-wire camp, Les was sentenced to death and was released by what he characterized in a 2008 article for AARP Magazine as a “last-minute stay secured by a government negotiating team.”

Taking such daunting risks in what may have been print journalism’s last golden age—the mid-to-late 20th century—was living the dream for aspiring reporters who were drawn to Newsday by Les’s example. In an era when those who did the hiring at newspapers seemed to invest greater value on specialists, Les Payne was an exemplar of adaptability, an adjustable wrench among open-ended metrics whose uses could at times be painfully limited.

Indeed, journalism is—or at least used to be—one of the few professions that could safely contain and nurture someone with as many interests as Les. His was a cultivated, eclectic temperament. He collected art and read widely and deeply. He was as much in thrall to the speeches of Malcolm X (the subject of a biography Les had been close to completing at the time of his death) as he was to the commentary of the quintessential American satirist H.L. Mencken. Les was able to look past, if not excuse, the Sage of Baltimore’s racist and anti-Semitic anachronisms in his journals and letters and acknowledge Mencken’s relatively enlightened views of African-American potential.

Les’s own punditry evoked much of Mencken’s insolence in the face of accepted wisdom, no matter whose wisdom it was. To be able to piss off both Ed Koch and Al Sharpton at the mid-to-late-1980s peak of their war of words exemplified the “perfect sense of equality” exalted by Les’s friend (and fellow Mencken-ite) Murray Kempton. As with Murray, Les wasn’t satisfied with writing commentary from behind office walls. The irrepressible reporter in him wanted to bear witness. It was this impulse that made him visit New York’s Dutchess County in 1987 when the Tawana Brawley story broke. Payne’s firsthand inquiry into Brawley’s allegations that she’d been kidnapped, then physically and sexually abused by a group of white men, including a county prosecutor, led him to conclude that she’d made the whole thing up. (He’d interviewed her ex-boyfriend who’d confirmed that she’d been neither assaulted nor raped.) Les caught hell from many in the black community who insisted on believing otherwise, including Sharpton. In the end, Les’s authority as a reporter prevailed over his critics. And at least in this reporter’s opinion, the best of Les’s columns are those where observation backed up his provocations.

Les did diverge from Mencken in at least one significant aspect: an enduring, unshakable belief in democracy. In a 2015 interview on Bob Herbert’s WNYC-TV talk show, Les acknowledged declines in both print and electronic journalism that would now make his own groundbreaking path to prominence nearly impossible. Nevertheless, he insisted that another “golden age of journalism is on the way,” because technological changes empower more people to report, share, and distribute information beyond the reach of corporations that are now abandoning or diminishing newspapers.

He acknowledged to Herbert that “our generation” of journalists faces challenges in imposing a value system of determining news, verifying information, and preventing libel onto a veritable “Wild West” of Internet content. Still, Les said he was optimistic about the long-term prospects for this new age: “[W]ithout a free press, without the free, fair, unbiased delivery of information, democracy is gone…. And I think people will find a way for this [new form of journalism] to pay for itself beyond the reach of corporations, which are totally about greed.”

Donald Trump was a year or so away from his scorched-earth campaign for president when this interview was first broadcast. One wonders if Les was still as optimistic about such matters before he died. I’m guessing he was. How improbable, after all, was it to imagine a half-century ago that an insouciant-looking black Army Ranger would become a prize-winning exemplar of the journalism trade? Some J-School students may now dream of making big scores in public relations. But there are still others who may want to grow up to be just like Les Payne, even without knowing who he was. I suspect he’d be more than OK with that.

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